Having trouble focusing at work? You might need more sleep.

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This article first appeared in the Blueprint365 magazine. Click here to request a complimentary copy.

Michael Heminger has never needed a lot of sleep; six and a half hours is usually enough. But when a litter of foxes took up residence under his neighbor’s garage last year, his nighttime routine got thrown off.

“Foxes make some crazy noises at night. And the dogs would hear them and be like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to go investigate,’” he said, waking him every couple of hours.

As a result, he had a hard time concentrating at his job as an online sales agent for Goodwill.

“It really felt like just basic survival every day,” he said. “I have to eliminate distractions as much as I can and just focus on the small steps I need to do to get my work done through the day.”

He tried to get by with some extra coffee during the day, but that almost made things worse.

“When I get in that cycle where I’ve had caffeine for a couple of days, my sleep isn’t as good. Once I wake up, it’s hard to go back to sleep. And it just turns into this vicious cycle,” he says.

He eventually had to take a sick day just to sleep.

Heminger’s experience is pretty typical of sleep-deprived people, says Dr. Jay Balachandran, a pulmonologist and sleep doctor at Ascension Columbia St Mary’s and co-director of sleep services for Ascension.

“If you’ve got difficulties with concentration, memory or attention at work, that can be a sign of a sleep issue,” Balachandran says, noting that sleep deprivation can look a lot like attention deficit disorder.

Heminger was keenly aware of his sleep deprivation issue – it was temporary and short term, and he knew exactly what was causing it. That’s not always the case.

Wisconsin is the 10th-most sleep deprived state in the union – 30 percent of the state’s residents report getting less than seven hours of sleep on average, according to the United Health Foundation. And most of us don’t even realize it.

“Many of us are so used to a degree of daytime tiredness that we wouldn’t even at first reflection think of ourselves as sleepy,” Balachandran says, noting that a cultural emphasis on hard work and “the grind” has normalized that feeling. “We tend to minimize the importance of sleep, or conversely, we minimize the negative impact of poor sleep on our health.”

Dr. Jay Balachandran. Photo supplied.

Poor or short sleep is associated with a number of health issues from heart disease to cancer. It can also affect your quality of life – and the quality of your work, as Heminger found.

In addition to difficulty concentrating, Balachandran suggests watching out for feelings of anxiety and depression, which can also stem from sleep deprivation.

Further, if you find yourself needing a lot of coffee (or other source of caffeine) to get through the day – you might want to see your doctor.

However, Balachandran says, don’t get hung up on what you learned about needing eight hours of sleep. 

“The ‘magic eight’ comes from population studies that have shown us that most people report that they need between seven and nine hours to feel restored,” he says. “But like any population distribution, there’s going to be a bell curve. And so there are normal healthy people who report that they need six hours to feel well refreshed. And that’s, that’s actually fine, if that’s truly the case. And there are folks who feel like they need nine hours to feel refreshed, and that’s fine as well … The amount of sleep you need is the amount of sleep it takes for you to wake up spontaneously feeling refreshed.”

Balachandran notes that, of course, in the modern world no one’s really able to maintain a work schedule without an alarm clock.

“It’s going to be the rare person who has the luxury of not needing to wake up to an alarm. So I’m not suggesting that we all try to do away with that. But that is the goal,” he said. “Certainly, if you feel like that alarm is necessary to get you up and you’re just dragging in the morning, it might suggest that there’s something going on with either the quality or quantity of your sleep, and it might warrant a conversation with your doctor.”

Poor or short sleep can be caused by a number of issues, both physical – like sleep apnea or other breathing issues – and mental, like anxiety. External factors like work schedules can also cause us not to get enough sleep.

“If you’ve got difficulties with concentration, memory or attention at work, that can be a sign of a sleep issue.” Dr. Jay Balachandran

Balachandran says daytime naps can help people cope with poor or short sleep – with some caveats.

Napping for an hour or two can cause you to have trouble sleeping at night. Napping for 30-45 minutes can mean you fall into and then wake from a deep sleep, which can actually make you feel groggier than you felt before. The perfect nap lasts between five and 20 minutes, Balachandran says.

“If you’re sleepy and nodding off, if you’re drowsy while driving or have a workplace impacted by sleepiness, then short cat naps are absolutely a lifesaver in some cases, frankly,” he says.

Balachandran says all else being equal, there’s little difference in sleep deprivation between people of different ethnicities; in every ethnic group except one, your sleep issues are tied more or less exclusively to age, weight and family history. That one ethnic group that’s different? East Asian people, who are more likely than other groups to have certain facial and cranial features that could cause breathing issues.

That said, obesity is an important factor in the breathing issues that lead to sleep trouble – and obesity is more prevalent in Black and brown populations. 

In Wisconsin, where 30 percent of the overall population reports sleeping less than seven hours a night, the proportion is higher among people of color: it’s 38.9 percent for Black folks, 39 percent for Indigenous people and 37 percent for Latinos. 

Balachandran says if you feel like you might not be getting enough sleep, you can find some pointers at SleepFoundation.org, and should probably talk to your doctor. 

Balachandran notes that getting enough sleep is an important, but often overlooked, piece of what’s become known as “self care” – something that’s taken on more importance than ever since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the trend was sort of moving in this direction,” Balachandran said. “Even before the pandemic we saw books and popular media starting to pick up on the concept of health and wellness and screening for sleep issues becoming more common in medical communities. My sense is the pandemic has just sort of accelerated what was already starting to happen.”

How’s your sleep hygiene?

Follow these steps from the Sleep Foundation to get a better night’s sleep. Learn more about why these steps are important and have your sleep profile assessed at sleepfoundation.org.

Before bedtime …

  • Get at least 30 minutes of exposure to daylight every day.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day.
  • Limit naps to 20 minutes in the early afternoon.
  • Boost your diet with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Calm your mind with deep breathing and visualization.
  • Follow the same pre-bed routine each night.
  • Reduce stress with calming activities.
  • Stop drinking coffee after 2 p.m.
  • Talk to your doctor if you rely heavily on caffeine.
  • Look out for hidden sources of caffeine.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages late in the evening.
  • Reduce nicotine intake before bed.

At bedtime … 

  • Set your phone to silent.
  • Don’t check the time while you’re trying to sleep.
  • Reduce or block out noise.
  • Keep the bedroom dark.
  • Set your bedroom to a temperature between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Use a supportive and comfortable mattress.
  • Try aromatherapy.
  • Choose a good pillow.
  • Improve bedroom ventilation.
  • Get out of bed if you can’t sleep after 20 minutes. Do something relaxing, then come back to bed when you’re sleepy.